It's been an interesting couple of months for Gareth Edmondson. Last month he quit his position as managing director of Ubisoft Reflections, the studio founded by his brother Martin in 1984, after 13 years with the company. Shortly afterwards came the news that he had been appointed CEO of Thumbstar Games, a Liverpool-based mobile game publisher. Then, earlier this week, he was named chairman of GameHorizon, a UK game industry network that runs an annual conference in the North East. He's the latest in a long line of industry figures to drift away from high-risk, big-budget traditional development and embrace mobile. We caught up with him to find out why he felt now was the time to make the switch, about his vision for Thumbstar, and his plans for his tenure as chair of GameHorizon.
It seems an odd time to leave Reflections, after Driver San Francisco was so well received. Why now, and how does it feel to have left?
We'd finished Driver and been thinking about what to do next, and [in that situation] you sort of put your head up and have a look at the opportunities that are around. Thumbstar looked like an excellent, well-positioned company – and it's been running for three years, so it's not like a new startup. There really seemed to be a great opportunity for growth, and it was a business that my brother had invested in at the outset, so there was a natural desire for us to work together. It all kind of clicked into place, really.
Of course I have a strong emotional attachment to Reflections; I was there for 13 years and it was founded by my brother 27 years ago. But the studio's fine, it's well-supported by Ubisoft, and I spent my last months making sure it had plenty of work, which it has. It's not without some regret, but I wanted to take on something really quite different.
And just how different are you finding mobile?
Well, Thumbstar's a small company. At the moment we're only eight or nine guys in total, but the point of doing this is to put some money into people and grow the company. I'm spending a lot of time at the moment getting more thirdparties signed up on the publishing side, ahead of the development studio opening its doors early next year. So in terms of the dev side I can't really comment yet, but it feels very different. We peaked out at 400 people on Driver at one point, so it's a very different day-to-day activity for me.
I'm enjoying going round and meeting thirdparties. It really feels, in some ways, like a reset of the industry. There are a lot of relatively young companies working on their games; the optimism, the ideas, the innovation, there's a real buzz. People feel like they can do anything.
And what can you offer thirdparties?
We can help get games to a much wider audience. We're not crossing our fingers for a breakout, Angry Birds-style hit – though obviously that would be nice. The strategy is that we put lots of games into lots and lots of markets and do sensible numbers, and that adds up to a nice profitable product. We're talking to developers who haven't even considered that this is an option yet; don't just stick it on the App Store and hope. At the same time, on the right products we'll do some traditional publishing activities in terms of marketing and PR, but with our distribution channels we really have a wide reach that is relatively straightforward to deal with. It's quite an interesting proposition for thirdparties.
Thumbstar's futuristic racing game T-Racer HD was designed to make the most of Nvidia's powerful Tegra 2 mobile chip
From a design perspective, mobile – free-to-play especially – is markedly different to traditional console games. How are you dealing with that?
For our own internal team we're hiring people that have got some experience of that on the design side. My background – in videogames, anyway – has been in traditional, single-sale, boxed products. It's very different, but then to have a good free-to-play game, the game still has to be good. The fundamentals of gameplay have to be there in F2P just as they do in high-end console games; you've got to get that right as well. It's never going away, and it's something we've got a lot of experience in.
Why did you choose to join an established company rather than set one up yourself?
Thumbstar was there, and it's profitable. The guys have done an amazing job of setting up all these distribution channels. We looked at the choice between creating a studio as part of this company or just starting an all-new one, and it was obvious that the right thing to do was go into Thumbstar and set up a dev team that gives us exclusive content, its own IP, that will allow us to negotiate with more and more distribution channels and further expand our worldwide reach.
It's obviously high quality – we're not in the business of producing crap. The idea is that we get into that virtuous cycle where we have more channels, so we attract more thirdparties and we publish more quality products.
How did the GameHorizon role come about, and what do you have planned?
I've been on the advisory board for a couple of years. Darren [Jobling, COO of Eutechnyx) has done a great job, and when he said he was stepping down they asked me. It sits very well with where we are at the moment in terms of the company. What we're seeing happening – not just in the region, but nationally as well – is a lot of small startups, all sorts of people starting small development teams. It feels a little bit like 20-odd years ago, like rewinding time, because of these small companies with great ideas, full of energy and drive. Of course, the whole distribution business has changed, and that's where part of our business comes in.
The really important thing GameHorizon does is connect all these people. There's a good community of developers in the North East; a few years ago there were really just a few big companies. Now there's all these small ones, there's a real value and benefit in them all talking to each other. We're going to put more events on that are relevant to our members, to share experiences and learn from each other. There's quite a lot of cross-pollination with the business as well – these guys need something doing and they don't have that expertise, but there are a lot of small companies in the area that can actually really help.
We're shifting the focus of the GameHorizon Conference a little bit this year; in the past it's been more executive-focused. We're going to change that to a more entrepreneurial focus. We're still trying to attract execs, but it's about innovation and entrepreneurs and sharing experiences and opportunities. The industry is going through quite a dramatic change at the moment, and that's what we want to address.